Janet Macpherson won a 2020 Writeability Fellowship for her rural crime novel in progress, ‘The Tide.’ Anyone who has caught a country train from Southern Cross, will sympathise with (or recognise) Leon Archibald, a traveller less than impressed with his fellow passengers.
Leon Archibald is damaged goods and knows it. He is aware of precisely what is wrong with him, where and when the damage was inflicted. What he doesn’t have a clue about, the question that rattles in his head like a knock in a gear box, is whether the condition is terminal or not.
Look at him sitting in the carriage of the train leaving Southern Cross Station today. Tall, dark short hair, crease between his eyes like a slice. If he’d had any idea at all about the company that he would have to keep on the ten-thirty morning train to Monument, he would have cheerfully coughed up the extra eleven bucks and travelled first class. But at the time he didn’t, so now he is stuck in the cheap seats. 12B. Cattle class.
It was not a problem until that blonde and her two scruffy kids plonked down on the bench in front of him. He watches her from his peripheral vision. Scrawny and advertising it in skinny legged jeans and a tank top with a stain across the gut. Her squalling offspring ricochet like bullets down the corridor of the carriage. They both snatch at the same bag of chips, voices shrill and relentless as fledgling galahs. The girl ignores them. Leon’s hands itch to ricochet them a bit harder.
Things go downhill from here fast. A whiff of beer breath announces a new arrival to Leon, as a guy with a back to front cap and Metallica t-shirt twists into the neighbouring seat. Can of VB in hand, he leans on the girl’s arm rest. Tattoo of an eagle swooping, talons extended, on his right bicep.
‘Where you been, Deb?’ he says. Voice low, intimate, just a hint of tough. ‘Still with that loser from Coolamon?’ Eyes stuck on her face, he takes a swig from the can. The eagle winks.
Leon watches her flick panda eyes up. ‘No. The bastard left me in Perth. With the kids.’ An emphasis on the last three words shows her disgust.
Eagle boy stiffens. ‘That a fact? With the kids?’
‘Yep.’ A toss of the blonde fringe. ‘Just shot through. I’m back to live with the parents for a bit. Get things sorted.’
A small lift of the lips near the can of VB betrays the notion that he’s on a winner as he leans closer, up for the chase now.
Leon shifts in his seat. Jesus, he thinks. A familiar anger lifts, eddies, swells, surges within him.
A tumble of thoughts. Please don’t let these losers disembark at Monument. Please head them further up the track. To Coolamon, or even Swan Hill. His head is tight. A punch growing. He squints and focuses as he recognises that unreasonable anger again. Remember the psych’s advice. Time to go.
He stands and lurches down the swaying carriage, into the next. Heat slaps him like a soggy towel. Still, even with the air conditioning on the blink it’s a shitload better than listening to any more of that rubbish. A headache flickers above his ear. Why can’t he get a grip on this avalanche of unwarranted fury?
Leon keeps moving to the end of the carriage. Need to get yourself under control, he tells himself. But for now, just settle for some breathing space.
There is only one free seat in the carriage and he plonks himself down in it. Velveteen with a fraying head rest. He breathes slowly and concentrates on his subsiding heartbeat. Breathe, he tells himself. Feel your feet on the ground. Focus on your body. He flicks the foot-rack and stretches his neck muscles slowly from side to side. Hears the crunch and crackle. No spring chicken anymore.
Opposite him a heavily pregnant, dark-haired girl has her head in a copy of Cosmopolitan. She lifts it to smile at him through crooked teeth. There is something sweetly glassy about her eyes, he thinks, as she turns them back to the magazine. Something not-quite-right.
Leon shakes his head briefly, closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to engage and settles back for the trip. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ hums ironically inside his brain.
Monument Station is a surprise. Like a quaint scene from a movie about the outback. Cream and dark red, Victorian timber work on the veranda and gable ends, geraniums plump in iron pots. A remnant of the Octopus Act that stretched rail tracks everywhere in Victoria before the Depression of the 1890s put paid to all expansion. Leon smiles despite himself.
Last time he was here the town had been crushed by a long dry spell. The station roof was sagging and the colour of the walls had slouched into the monochrome of the surrounding dust. Since then it had rained and some local Progress Society clearly now had time on their hands. On the opposite side of the tracks, the rusty silos still sport pipes and scaffolding that snake meaninglessly about them, remnants of prosperous agricultural days long gone. This is his Monument yet.
The dark-haired girl disembarks with him, but panda girl and beer boy stay put on the train. Just a sixty second stop as Leon and the girl toss bags hastily onto the platform, a whistle and the train slides away.
No-one is here to meet the pregnant girl either, he sees. This irks. Everything Leon is craves lack of involvement. But she looks like she might give birth at any moment with that huge belly. Her suitcase is large and lopsided. He sighs in defeat. ‘Can I help you with that?’
Once again that not-quite-right, glassy look. He sees now that her eyes are blue and red-rimmed. She wears her hair in a ponytail like a kid. She can’t be more than twenty.
Her laugh jitters. ‘I’m OK,’ she says. Her pupils swallow her eyes.
He twists away and her cavalry turns up. A black utility growling right up to the platform. Sideboards like a refugee from the seventies. Dark-haired driver, thirtyish. Doesn’t get out, just sits behind the wheel, silent. Leon flicks him an eye.
Pregnant girl lights up like a neon light, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that the enthusiasm flows one way. The driver hunches behind the wheel, frowning. Her welcoming smile crumbles.
She climbs heavily into the passenger seat, her swollen gut another unwieldy bag as she struggles up. Sideboards reaches down to plonk her suitcase between them and takes off like he’s just picked up an awkward parcel.
Look at him shrug and turn away from the girl now. See him pick up his pack and turn his head down the main street.
He knows absolutely nothing about the tsunami that is gathering to swallow her.